It’s always difficult to criticise a film based on a real person’s life – it can feel as if one is failing to show due respect to that person. Sometimes, though, such a film lets its subject down all by itself, and the worst crime would seem to be to say nothing.
To be fair, this film, which is adapted from subject Jonathan Larson’s own autobiographical stage musical, is aimed squarely at the traditional Hollywood musical crowd. If that’s your thing, and if you’re disinclined to risk spoiling life’s simple pleasures by thinking overmuch about what you watch, then this may be right up your street. It resembles a Eurovision Song Contest Winner in its ability to stick precisely to form, complete with key change two thirds in, whilst passing itself off as something new. There is not a single note in any one of its songs which will surprise you, and although ostensibly big on emotion it’s so slick that you will feel nothing except what you take in there yourself. It focuses on Larson’s experiences whilst composing his first stage musical, Superbia, which had a science fiction theme initially drawn from Orwell, yet one might think more of the work of William Gibson and his suggestion that the appeal of mirrorshades lies in the opportunity to be intimate with a stranger whilst gazing at one’s own reflection.
Beyond this, the central problem with the film is Andrew Garfield’s performance – lauded in some quarters, likely an award winner, yet quietly loathed by a growing body of critics who find it difficult to know how to say so in public in the face of so much acclaim. No matter what the public may think, most of us don’t enjoy tearing people down. Garfield has proven himself to be a more than capable actor in the likes on Never Ler Me Go and The Social Network, and he’s decent in the recent The Eyes Of Tammy Faye, but whether he works or not seems to depend heavily on how he engages with his director, and watching him here is simply excruciating. His performance is so heavily mannered that it feels like an insulting parody, so overwrought that one feels embarrassed for him. He is a naked emperor strutting his stuff and his co-stars seem to spend most of their energy striving not to say so.
To watch a film structured around something like this take on highly sensitive issues around homophobia and the developing AIDS epidemic is deeply uncomfortable. It can’t be avoided, given that Larson would go on to create Rent, but it also skews the narrative balance of the piece because we’re supposed to care about Larson’s creative angst at a point when the adjacent gay community is facing abject horror. Although it can sometimes be more effective to look at a subject like this in a distanced away rather that centring it, the film pays it too little attention to make that work, a couple of brave performances from supporting players can’t make up for this, especially given the tweeness of the dialogue. One doubts that the real Larson was as unpleasant as this makes him seem.
In addition to this, the way that Larson’s creative struggle is depicted makes use of every cliché in the book. It would be difficult to take seriously even with a good central performance. Musicals of a certain ilk may find a lot of mileage in the familiar, but this is comfort filmmaking taken to the point where it becomes suffocating. Don’t feel obliged to watch it just because Hollywood tells you to. And if conventional musicals are not your thing, run, run for the hills.
Reviewed on: 08 Jan 2022